Ahhh, those guys knew how to do special effects! In a modern evangelical landscape where seeker sensitivity has gone mad it would seem only natural to stay away from every conceivable Star Trek illustration. Though I am not, nor ever will be a “Trekkie” (why learn Klingon when Hebrew and Greek are hard enough as it is), Captain Kirk’s iconic phrase “beam me up Scotty” has become a catch cry for those of us who need a rapid evacuation from a foreign situation.
But the Bible interpreter needs just the opposite. In order to rightly understand Scripture in its full context there is a cultural bridge that must be crossed. Rather than evacuate a situation that is foreign to us, the exegete regularly needs to be teleported (or beamed down) into the historical cultural setting of the text he is trying to faithfully handle. J. Scott Duvall says that:
The Christian today is separated from the biblical audience by differences in culture, language, situation, time, and often covenant. These differences are a river that hinders us from moving straight from meaning in their context to meaning in ours. The width of the river, however, varies from passage to passage . . . It is obviously important to know just how wide the river is before we start trying to construct a principlizing bridge across it.
The Toolbox When reconstructing an historical background our first port of call should always be the text itself that we are referring to. From this we can piece together many pieces to the hermeneutical puzzle. Carefully reading and re-reading the surrounding text or entirety of that particular book of the Bible will usually yield many clues. We may also find parallel passages in other books of the Bible. The Chronicles parallel much of Samuel and Kings. It is not unusual to find a passage from one of the prophets having a corresponding historical information in narrative found elsewhere. The book of Acts has “crossover” points with Pauline Epistles and we even have the four Gospel accounts which complement each other so beautifully in giving multiple camera angles on the same event.
There are times, however, when the interpreter may need to draw on other tools at his disposal. Most commentaries contain vital information regarding who the author was, when he wrote it, who he was writing to, the historical circumstances, and the author’s purpose in writing. Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias can provide tremendous help in our excavations of Scripture. Geographical research can also serve the exegete well in adding power and dimension to his preaching. Drama and impact can be heightened when we know how far Jesus had to travel to get from His tomb to Emmaus Road or the average speed required, and calories burned, for Elijah to run from Beersheba to Mount Horeb during forty days of purpose fasting. Bible Atlases can really get the job done here.
The Goalposts Reconstructing the culture, customs, and circumstances of an ancient civilization requires that we, the interpreter, understand the original situation that instigated the Scriptural account. Primarily, we want to know the circumstances surrounding the author and his audience. The interpreter becomes an investigator trying to piece together and recreate the drama as it originally happened.
The interpreter should seek to determine the date that the biblical book was written. This helps greatly in ascertaining what important historical events had transpired (or were transpiring) when the text was written. When this is known, obscure happenings can come to life and bring significant meaning.
It is also important to know who the author of the book was and who his audience was. This brings many relational and circumstantial factors into play. How is the author connected to Jesus? Is he in prison? Is his audience in the midst of intense persecution even to the point of death? This sort of research is vital in our historical immersion.
We should also seek to discover the purpose for the book being written. Historical and cultural information help to paint a clearer picture of the motivating factors and grounds for the book being written in the first place. Knowing the political situation, the customs of that time period, the state of the surrounding cultures, and the spiritual health of that society, all help the exegete to faithfully handle the text and beam his audience down into the world he has re-created!
You have heard or suspected some unkind or slanderous rumor about me. Whatever it was it was nowhere near the truth. The truth is so much worse than anything you could have possibly heard or imagined. For me to try and defend my reputation against anything so trivial would be ridiculous!
The truth is my premeditated crimes were so heinous and malicious that they resulted in choosing to fatally execute an innocent man. And not just any man, but a man that was the nearest and dearest, bravest, most loving, most compassionate, and most perfect man in all of history. And not a humane execution but a tortuous excruciatingly painful death of the foulest humiliation in front of His own mother and before His very Father! That Jesus forgives me knowing the truth about me is miraculous! To say that I owe Him my life is such an understatement it is almost shameful to claim. My offering is so infinitely small by comparison yet I live with such joy and gratitude that I cannot explain it. You may have heard or suspected some unkind or slanderous rumor about me - whatever it was it was nowhere near the truth.
There are three major categories of mishandling Scripture:
1. Mis-interpretation - ascribing the wrong meaning to a passage. This is the most disastrous because it involves getting the interpretation completely wrong. 2. Sub-interpretation - failing to ascertain the full meaning of a passage. Nothing erroneous is said in this scenario but it does involve erring on the side of too little information, especially if an important point is missed. 3. Super-interpretation - attributing more to a passage than actually exists. This is the most dangerous because it involves a mixture of correct interpretation with some fantasy elements. We need to be extra careful with this because people often have a tendency to lower their discernment radar if the interpreter starts out soundly before veering into heresy land.
The most common hermeneutical problems in modern day
evangelical churches can be clearly seen via a simple perusal of the
surrounding text. One classic example of this would be in Matthew 18:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be
bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it
will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are
gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matthew
“When two or three gather in God’s Name He is there among
us. Whatever we bind and loose on earth shall be bound and loosed in heaven.” This
was a very popular saying in the Pentecostal church that I attended for ten
years. I would have heard this quoted hundreds of times and almost always at
every prayer meeting. I don’t think it is entirely incorrect to believe that
God is among us when we gather in His Name, but it is amazing that, considering
the number of times this verse was quoted, I never heard it in its context. If
we start just three verses earlier the context becomes very clear even to the
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his
fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your
brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that
every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If
he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to
listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and
whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if
two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by
my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I
among them." (Matthew
What is the context here? Church discipline! Church
discipline is the true Christian’s friend and the false Christian’s reality
check. It restores the fallen brother and removes the false convert. God, in
His kindness, delays His wrath, giving lost sinners time to repent. In this
time when God restrains His wrath (that will come one day) He has given the
church the authority to deal with unrepentant sin in the congregation. Paul
teaches in 1 Corinthians 5 that God deals with those in the world and the
church deals with those inside church. And sometimes the church casts people
out into the world to protect the believers and in the trust that God will now
deal with them. And here God tells us that He is with church leaders when they
practice church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.
The good news for the layman wrestling with alarm bells
every time he hears his pastor preach in “mega-church suburbia” is that most
hermeneutical errors fall into the same category as the example above. A plain
reading of the surrounding text usually detects the common error of simply
ignoring the context of an easily understandable passage.
But wait there’s more! There are other hazards that
regularly appear on the narrow hermeneutical highway. The popular phrase “my
life verse” is the description many people give to a Bible verse that they like
and then personalize in application to themselves. And the Behemoth of modern
day “life verses” would have to be Jeremiah 29:11.
This may be therapeutic to our self esteem but is it a reflection of biblical truth applied personally? Reading this verse in
its context and wider context we learn that this is a part of a particular
message, to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular
situation. What was the situation of Jeremiah 29:11?
Israel had been taken by the Babylonians into captivity. The
Temple in Jerusalem was in ruins and the king had had his eyes cut out. The
glory of Israel as a nation was finished. But in the midst of this terrible
situation – God speaks:
4 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,
to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build
houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and
have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in
marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not
decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your
welfare. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your
prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to
the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you
in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD. 10 "For thus says the
LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I
will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares
the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You
will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be
found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather
you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares
the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into
exile. 15 "Because you have said, 'The LORD has raised up prophets for us
in Babylon,' 16 thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne
of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen
who did not go out with you into exile: 17 'Thus says the LORD of hosts,
behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make
them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue
them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the
kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among
all the nations where I have driven them, (Jeremiah
29:4-18 emphasis mine)
It would be possible to spend several lessons on this
passage alone but for the sake of brevity I will give just four points to
1. Why do people think they can claim verse 11 as their own "life verse" but decide that verses 17 and 18 do not apply to them? 2. When God speaks in verse 11 remember that verse 4 shows us that He has His foot on their neck while He is saying it. 3. The people receiving the promise in verse 11 will not even live to see its fulfillment (it will take 70 years). 4. The reason Israel was in Babylonian slavery was because they had spent their time listening to prophets who told them things they liked to hear.
It is foolish to read Jeremiah 29:11
as a personal message from God to us as individuals. But there is something far
greater that we learn from this story in its true context - that God does not abandon His people! We need
to beware of this seductive trap in personalizing verses that do not
necessarily apply to us.
Another hazard that
is more difficult to detect is that of reading the meaning of one passage into
another. This practice is rampant in the field of eschatology as different
camps try to make the entire Canon fit within their apocalyptic parameters.
While the practice of using explicit passages to help interpret unclear
passages of Scripture can have validity, it must be done so only when there is
a clearly defined connection between the two.
This leads into
another more sophisticated hazard, that of reading one’s theological
preferences into a passage of Scripture. Professor Matt Waymeyer (my Hermeneutics lecturer at The master's Seminary) readily
identifies two ways of reading a theological system into a passage:
First, when an interpreter finds a discrepancy between
his theological beliefs and a given passage of Scripture, he may be tempted to
twist that passage to fit his theology rather than let his theology be
corrected – or at least refined – by Scripture. Secondly, sometimes an
interpreter will simply read more into a given passage than is actually there
in the text itself. In this case, his theology may be true and biblical, but it
is not taught in the passage under consideration. Both are examples of
When Waymeyer refers to “eisegesis”, he is talking about the
precise opposite of exegesis. Exegesis is the extraction of meaning out of a text
while eisegesis involves imposing one’s meaning onto the text. I think it is
safe to say that the prosperity preacher who equates the donkey Jesus rode on
with the contemporary equivalent of a Ferrari is not practicing exegesis!
Another ever-present danger on the hermeneutical highway is
that of our own personal experiences. What we feel and sense does not
necessarily define God’s reality and we need to be aware of that when reading a
passage that we think can be defined in terms of what we have previously
experienced. Just because I am physically healthy and materially wealthy does
not mean that 3 John 2 is an all encompassing doctrinal statement on God’s will
for the health and wealth of every Christian. Our experiences must be defined
and understood through the lens of Scripture and not the other way around.
We live in a church era where the common mantra is "you have your interpretation and I have my interpretation and no one can know for sure so lets just all take our bats and go home". It has become our own version of "pleading the fifth". Statements like this (and I have heard many "church leaders" say words to this effect) make their own doctrinal allegiance to the authority of Scripture as useless and meaningless. Such claims amount to nothing less than a denial of the inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture itself.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “God is not the author of
confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33a) and this would certainly be consistent with
Him giving fallen men a written revelation of Himself. It becomes one of the
many ways that a Holy and Righteous God stoops down to sinful and fallen men. Professor Matt Waymeyer of "The Master's Seminary" writes:
Because the Bible was given to reveal truth rather than
conceal it, the interpreter must assume the overall clarity of God’s Word.
Often referred to as the perspicuity of Scripture, this means that the divine
intention of the Bible was/is basically clear and comprehensible to its
original author, its original audience, and its contemporary readers. This is
not to say that all parts of Scripture are equally clear or that there are no
difficult passages to interpret (2 Pet 3:16), and this does not deny that later
revelation provides a fuller picture of the subject addressed in earlier
prophecy. But it does mean that the basic meaning of biblical prophecy was
intelligible and could be understood when it was originally revealed.
This perspicuity of God’s Holy Word became increasingly
undermined as can be seen even in the later stages of the New Testament with
the rise of Gnosticism and appeals to “secret knowledge” belonging to spiritual
elitists. We see this issue clearly raised in Jude’s Epistle when he unmasks
the modus operandi of these wolves that were infiltrating the body of Christ as
early as the first century AD:
Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the
flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 8ESV emphasis mine)
Even in Jude’s time we see false teachers who are making
claims of dreams that give them deeper knowledge. We see this today in the
Charismatic movement and especially within the Word Faith factions of that
movement. What is implied by this Gnostic knowledge? That the plain surface
meaning is not enough. They are saying that deeper, hidden knowledge is where true
spirituality is really at. And it continues into the present day unabated:
Joyce Meyer goes on to tell her hearers soon after this that they should not go looking in the Bible for this teaching on the atonement because they won't find it there. Joyce tells them that this special knowledge only comes through "personal revelation". Aside from the biblical fact that Joyce Meyer is unqualified (as a woman, see 1 Timothy 2-3) to stand in a pulpit, such ridiculous claims do not even warrant further debate.
The various factors of false teaching, refutation of false
teaching, theological agendas, and the need to harmonize difficult Scriptural
passages all impacted on the practice of hermeneutics in the early church era.
During the Patristic Period (A.D. 100-590) the early church fathers placed
great emphasis on allegorizing biblical passages. This was the “search for
hidden or secret meaning that underlies the actual words of a given text – a
meaning that is unrelated to the more obvious meaning of the text.” The
early church fathers also began to place greater value and emphasis on the
traditional interpretation of a passage being the correct one rather than
evaluating a traditional interpretation in the light of what the Scripture
The Medieval Period (A.D. 590-1500) saw these ideas develop
further and really set the scene for what Roman Catholicism holds to in its
present form. Biblical students focused more on studying what the church
fathers had to say about any given portion of the biblical text and placed
almost no importance on exegeting the text itself. The Bible was no longer the
ultimate authority because that was now trumped by how church tradition
interpreted that Bible. And this tradition was primarily driven by
allegorization as church tradition continually found deeper (and more self serving)
meaning from texts that spoke plainly and differently to these “allegorical
The Reformation Period (1500-1650) was a revolution in the
handling of Scripture. With a renewed emphasis on the supreme authority of
Scripture (Sola Scriptura was their battle cry), the Reformers trashed Rome’s
“creative accounting” in favor of a plain reading of the biblical text in its
original languages. This was a pivotal moment in church history. Martin Luther
was the man who ignited the Reformation with his brazen defiance of Popes and
Roman religiosity. Luther maintained that Scripture was its own best
interpreter and that interpretation should be driven by this concept.
The period following the Reformation (1650-1800) saw the
rise of Pietism, and with it, an approach to interpretation focused on careful
grammatical-historical analysis of the Scriptures in their original languages.
They could see that the God of the Bible did not have a problem explaining
Himself and a natural reading of the text, in context, could yield
comprehensible results to the recipient when read in this natural way.
Rationalism was also on the rise at this time and elevated the human intellect
to the point where the Rationalists thought that Scripture needed to conform to
their reasoning, and the parts that refused were simply ignored or rejected.
During the Modern Period (1800-Present), rationalism gave
birth to what would become theological liberalism. The Higher-Critical Method
was brazen intellectual snobbery. These people cared nothing for the authority
of Scripture. Their interpretive focus avoided the pursuit of discovering what
God was saying through His Word, and instead focused on delusional attempts at
trying to explain the “editorial process” that caused Scripture to appear in
the form that they found it in.
The 20th Century gave rise to the Reader-Response
Method where the author of the text was not allowed into the discussion on what
the text was saying. These people considered it far more important to decide
what the text was saying to them. What fun can be had by reinterpreting
Reader-Response conclusions in even more fanciful and self serving ways at the
expense of their own self importance.
D.A. Carson wrote as far back as 1984 on this important
shift in the mode of attack on conservative evangelicalism when he said there
had been a change in the theological climate over the preceding four decades.
At the risk of oversimplification, one could argue that the generation of conservative Christians before the present one faced opponents who argued in effect that the Bible is not trustworthy, and only the ignorant or blind could claim it is. In the present generation, there are of course many voices that say the same thing; but there are new voices that loudly insist our real problem is hermeneutical and exegetical. (D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies p18)
This sounds ominously like the “emergent church” which would
begin to appear more than a decade after Carson penned those words. The enemy
within is far more dangerous than the enemy without. A Richard Dawkins who
rails on God, Christianity, and the Bible is an obvious enemy that we can see
coming well in advance. A Brian MacLaren, on the other hand, is a far more
dangerous threat because he masquerades as one of us and claims to uphold the
authority of Scripture all the while being hell-bent on redefining so much of
what it plainly says.
If we want to understand a book in the best possible way
then we need to ask the author exactly what he was saying. So too with
Scripture, we need to know the authorial intent if we are to interpret it
rightly. And Scripture is unique in that it has what we call Dual Authorship. If
I was to hand write you a letter with my finest Shepherd’s Conference fountain
pen, would you say that the letter was written by my fountain pen? Likewise,
throughout history, God has used special men as writing tools in His hand to
bring about His written revelation. Some of the distinctive qualities of these
human fountain pens are evident, but they are transcended by the divine voice
that speaks through them. Though this analogy is not a watertight analogy it can be somewhat helpful.
Throughout the Bible we see that its text regularly
presented as both the words of God and the words of man (2 Samuel 23:2, 1 Kings
14:18, 16:12, 16:34, 2 Kings 9:36, 14:25, 1 Chronicles 17:3, Jeremiah 1:9,
37:2, Zechariah 7:7,12, Luke 1:70, Acts 1:16, 2:16-17, 3:18,21, 4:25, 28:25,
Romans 1:1-2, 1 Corinthians 9:8-10, 14:37, Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Thessalonians
2:13, 4:8, 4:15, Hebrews 1:1, 1 Peter 1:10-12, 2 Peter 3:2, Rev 1:1-3). This
fact is most clearly nailed down in Paul’s second letter to Timothy and in
Peter’s second Epistle:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is
profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in
righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto
all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 KJV)
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is
of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the
will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2
Peter 1:20-21 KJV)
The fact of Dual Authorship has major implications for the
right practice of sound hermeneutics. Waymeyer explains this when he says that:
The dual authorship of Scripture ultimately forms the
foundation of Bible interpretation, for upon it rest five aspects of Scripture,
which, in turn, lead to specific principles for interpreting God’s Word. These
five aspects are the overall unity of Scripture, the overall clarity of
Scripture, the single meaning of Scripture, the contextual nature of Scripture,
and the human language of Scripture.
For this reason the Grammatical-Historical method of Bible
interpretation, with its emphasis on examining the context and interpreting the
content of the passage, has maintained a healthy following through the recent
centuries of hermeneutical turbulence. It is the “no brainer” approach to
interpreting the Bible because the God of the Bible has never had a problem